Sunday, February 27, 2011

Social Networking ... Old School

"We had social networking when I was a kid. I think it was called 'Outside'".

This witty comment, which I came across recently, has inspired this week's post. Ironically, the term "Social Networking", meaning FaceBook, MySpace and any number of other internet chat forums is, in a sense, an oxymoron. It might be argued that those who spend a significant amount of time "networking" with others via this medium are actually losing the ability to network in person. Put some of these people in a room with other flesh-and-blood human beings and it becomes painfully apparent that they have no idea how to interact with others who are standing right in front of them. Perhaps a more appropriate term might be "Anti-social Networking".

I once saw an episode of "60 Minutes" which examined why young children nowadays seem to have lost the ability to create their own fun. To be fair, the feature wasn't talking about FaceBook or even computers in general. It was talking more about modern parenting styles. Many parents enroll their children in any number of recreational programs; anything from pee-wee sports to dance to general fitness to French immersion to computer camp. These programs, while well-meaning, are so structured and controlled by adults that the kids who participate in them need not exercise any kind of spontaneity. They simply follow the schedules and participate in the routines. Put one of these kids outside by themselves and simply say to them "Go play" (you know, the way parents used to do back in the seventies and earlier) and they (the kids) are at a complete loss. They have no idea how to begin.

Admittedly, this is slightly beside my original point, but electronic media only exacerbates the situation. Many kids have gotten to the point where they're practically incapable of amusing themselves without the aid of some type of electronic gadget. There was an episode of "The Simpsons" (a television show which is widely acclaimed for its thought-provoking social commentary) in which Marge Simpson managed to eliminate all violence from "The Itchy and Scratchy" cartoon show. The result was a cartoon that was so bland and boring that the kids didn't enjoy it any longer and, consequently, they stopped enjoying television in general. Without the medium of TV, they suddenly had to find an alternate form of entertainment, and this happened...

(c) Twentieth Century Fox, 2001

Hard though it may be for the younger generation to believe, this is what childhood used to be like (although I admit that the May Pole may have been a bit over the top). I lived in a neighborhood with lots of other kids when I was a boy, and most of those kids played together outdoors. Of course, there were the usual matches of sandlot baseball and street hockey, but I was never much of an athlete even in my tender (and thinner) years.

I recall one of the rare times that a few of the older boys let me join in a game of street hockey with them. There was one particularly stocky kid by the name of Nicky who had a notoriously wicked slap shot (for his age, at least). Every goalie within a six block perimeter knew and feared Nicky. He happened to be playing on this particular occasion. At one point, I happened to be standing between Nicky and my team's hapless goaltender when he (Nicky) wound up and let loose one of his infamous canons. I was unable to move out of the line of fire in time and so the Indian rubber ball smacked the blade of my stick with full force and ricocheted off to Scranton, PA or some equally obscure location.

You'd think I'd have been fine, having blocked the shot with my stick the way one is supposed to, albeit completely by accident, but the impact sent a tremor up the shaft of my stick and through my forearms that made me feel like Warner Brothers' Wile E. Coyote after whacking a petrified rock (that was meant to be a Road Runner) with a club. In the cartoon, I believe he disappeared down the road, still vibrating as he went. That's how I felt.

Because of experiences like this one, I preferred to participate in less sports-oriented games; the kind of games that kids used to invent on their own back in the old days. Games like "Mother May I", "Red Light/Green Light" and "Red Rover". Remember those?

For the benefit of the under-forty crowd who may not, in fact, remember those, let me give you some idea of what I'm talking about. "Red Rover" was always a favorite in my neighborhood. You needed a minimum of six kids to play it; ten or more was better. The kids would form two teams with the same number of kids on each side (if there was an odd number of kids participating, it was okay for one side to have an extra member). Both teams would form a line abreast, each facing the other, join hands and take turns calling a member from the other team with a sing-song chant that went, for example, "Red Rover, Red Rover we call Johnny over!" The kid whom the other team had summoned would then have to run full-speed at what he perceived to be the weakest link in the chain of joined hands and try to break through it. The calling team, on the other hand, would try to stop the summoned kid without him breaking the chain. If the runner managed to break the chain, he could return to his or her team. If not, he had to join the other team. The game ended when one team had acquired all but one player (yes, you could have a "chain" consisting of only two kids).

Needless to say, the smallest, slowest, lightest kids tended to be called first but, eventually, there was no choice but to call the "canonball" kids; you know, the big, burly kids who looked like the Tasmanian Devil as they approached; nothing more than a whirling dust-cloud with the occasional arm or leg appearing and disappearing around the perimeter, while each kid in the chain hoped that he wasn't heading for one of their hands.

These were the types of games that kids used to invent when they had no electronic gadgets to keep them entertained. Don't get me wrong. I'm not vilifying electronic amusements. I enjoy a good computer game as much as the next person, and I realize that criticizing social networking may come off as a tad hypocritical coming from someone who's busily posting on his blog. However, it's hard to deny that all this technology has robbed kids of the opportunity to create their own fun through sheer imagination, and it has greatly reduced face-to-face social interaction. The sad result, I think, is that kids have lost one of the real joys of childhood without even realizing it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Keep Your Justin Bieber - These Kids Were Really Keane!

Being Canadian is a funny thing. I live in a country that designed, produced, and then scrapped (for no readily apparent reason) the most advanced fighter-interceptor the world had ever seen. We fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the British, French and Americans against totalitarian regimes in both the Great Wars. Canadians have improved the quality of life around the world and changed the very fabric of society with contributions such as insulin, the telephone, the snowmobile, the IMAX camera, the space shuttle's Canadarm and, of course, the Blackberry. But what's the first thing that everyone, including Canadians themselves, associates us with? Bob and Doug Mackenzie, and the Great White North ("Coo-roo-koo-koo-coo-roo-koo-KOOOO!!! G'day! How's it goin' eh?)

Similarly, Canada has made some fantastic contribution to the music industry over the years; Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, Burton Cummings, Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Geddy Lee, Ian Thomas, The Barenaked Ladies... the list goes on and on. So it's completely beyond my comprehension what this fascination is with Justin Bieber; a kid who looks more suited for a career as a L'Oreal model than as a singer. Honestly, world, we really do have so much more to offer, eh?

Understand, it's not that I have any sort of bias against child stars. Michael Jackson's star shone brightly at an early age and he went on to prove in adulthood that he was more than just a flash in the pan. Donny Osmond showed his talent not only on radio and television but even on Broadway. And then, of course, there was the incomparable Jack Wild, who played the Artful Dodger in the Columbia Pictures musical, "Oliver!" and starred as Jimmy in the Rankin and Bass kids' show "H.R. Pufnstuf". I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge pre-pubescent greatness when I see it. But I've watched Justin Bieber's performances on YouTube and, I'm sorry, I just don't see the fascination. His voice, while not terrible, isn't outstandingly good either. I suppose I'll have to reserve my final judgement on that point until it actually changes. His stage presence seems just a little too scripted and rehearsed. In the trailer for his new movie, "Never Say Never", the little black kid that introduces him has, in my opinion, more charisma and presence than does Bieber himself. Most of it appears to be just lights and hype and throngs of shrieking tweenie girls in the throes of "Bieber Fever"; an appropriate aphorism, as only a serious fever-induced delirium could explain such behavior.

Back in 1976, I saw a young duo who, in my opinion had real talent; the Keane Brothers. These kids, aged 11 and 12 at the time, were 4 and 5 years younger than Bieber is today. Now, granted, the fact that their father, Bob Keane, happened to be a well-known music producer and owned his own record company probably didn't hurt their chances any, but I saw these kids perform on "Cos" (Bill Cosby's hour-long variety show) back in the day, and I was blown away by their act. They were like Journey, only half the size! Heck, they even sang in Steve Perry's key. They also had their own short-lived TV show, which finally managed to unseat that ratings hog, "Wonder Woman". I think that credentials like that speak for themselves. But don't take my word for it. Listen to them for yourself.

Where are they now? Well, they went on to successful careers as song writers and music producers. As for Justin? While I wouldn't wish Jack Wild's fate on him, I'd have a hard time suppressing a sardonic smile if that's what the future should have in store. But I'd feel really badly about it afterward. Honest!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Chinese Air Force: The New Top Gun

There has been increased speculation since the turn of the century that China is fast closing the gap between itself and the United States and may be emerging as the world's next great super power. The Chinese have their own space program, their military power is growing in leaps and bounds, and their economy is growing, even as America's economy falters. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently referred to China as "America's Banker".

So it would be understandable if a recent Chinese state-sponsored video depicting China's state of the art J-10 fighter obliterating some hapless enemy aircraft caused concern at the Pentagon. That is, it would be, if the video hadn't been ripped off from a Hollywood movie.

For all its political and economic clout, China has apparently not yet learned that you never, ever try to put one over on internet users. Believe me, this blogger has long since learned his lesson about the folly of trying to fool the online community! It wasn't long before several sharp-eyed web surfers, bloggers and Comic Book Guy type geeks noticed a suspicious similarity between the fireball resulting from the J-10's fearsome missile and a fireball from the Hollywood movie, "Top Gun". In fact, the two appear to be identical.

Needless to say, the incident has left China a bit red-faced. (Get it? Red! China! Red China! I made a funny!) But, you know, they may just be on to something here. Perhaps other governments, even the United States, could make themselves seem more intimidating by passing off Hollywood footage as their latest military arsenal. Here are some modest examples for your consideration:

To begin with, Russia could follow suit with footage of their own next-gen fighter jet:

As an added bonus, the pilots all look like Clint Eastwood. Who wouldn't be intimidated by that?

The U.S. might unveil its latest "Star Wars" anti-missile defence satellite:

After that, they won't need their bureaucracy any longer. Fear will keep the local countries in line. Fear of this killer satellite!

The Afghan troops might show off their latest all-terrain troop transport:

Heck, if it can withstand a nuclear holocaust, it can certainly withstand the occasional IED.

How about the latest military attack helicopter?

I understand it's equipped with a forward-mounted, twenty-millimeter electric cannon. Its six barrels are capable of firing four thousand rounds of ammunition per minute. And that, gentlemen, is one hell of a shit-storm in anybody's language!

Or they might claim that they're taking soldiers out of harm's way entirely and replacing them with new robotic soldiers:

Or strike fear into the enemy by threatening to use their latest heavy artillery guns:

This idea needn't be limited to the military. Police forces might demonstrate their newest tactical armored vehicle:

You get the idea. The list could go on and on. Why squander military and/or law enforcement budgets when Hollywood has already spent the money for you? It's faster, cheaper, and will probably get more peoples' attention in the long run.

Those Chinese, they're not so dumb!